As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review is intended for people who have already played the game, and as such, it will contain spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Firewatch is not a game that thrives on individual moments. Sure, the plot has twists and turns, and there are plenty of surprises, but the game isn’t an exercise in setpiece-hopping. Most of the player’s time is spent walking through the Wyoming woods, conversing with the protagonist’s supervisor on a two-way radio. It took a lot of guts for developers Campo Santo to make walking and talking the foci of their debut game, and for the most part, they succeeded.
Firewatch can best be described as a Metroidvania walking simulator. As you progress through the plot, you unlock items that allow you to go to previously unreachable locations. It’s a necessary – if slightly artificial – setup; if the player could simply go where they pleased, then the plot could be over within a matter of minutes. Despite the illusion of freedom of exploration, Firewatch has to be a carefully constructed carnival ride, or else the whole endeavour would fall apart.
That, in principle, is not necessarily a criticism of the game. Nobody should realistically expect infinite freedom from a video game, and for the most part, Firewatch’s content is gated off in a logical manner. Campo Santo went the extra mile to make immersion a priority; navigation is performed using a map and compass, and Henry, the protagonist, isn’t a superhuman who can leap across chasms or scale cliffs without footholds. Firewatch wants to feel grounded in reality, and I think that’s key to how we should parse its story – but more on that later.
However, Firewatch does occasionally brush up against its ludic aspects in ways that make the player hyper-aware that they’re playing a game. (No, this isn’t ludonarrative dissonance; that would be a misapplication of the term.) There is almost always a convenient place to tie a rope for rappelling down an incline, and the scree always has the same texture. Moreover, climbable rocks are all perfectly-shaped rectangular prisms that look man-made. (There’s an argument to be made that they could have been placed there to make trails easier to negotiate, but they’re present even off trails and in the cave.)
It should be said: it’s not a bad thing that Firewatch is a video game! I’m not asking it to transcend its medium. But I do think it’s trying to operate on two different levels of immersion: the Metroidvania, where the player has to navigate the environment; and the walking simulator, where the player steps into Henry’s shoes.
And really, the walking simulator is where the meat of the game is. Firewatch’s section of the Wyoming wilderness is meant to be admired. Shafts of sunlight peek their way between the foliage, illuminating the soil with a golden hue. Reflections glint off the surface of the water, creating a glow around the lake. The entire environment is rendered in loving, painterly detail. Firewatch is far from photorealistic, but its art style evokes the wilderness far better than the uncanny valley of its AAA brethren. The lush environments are there for the player to get lost in, to make them feel far removed from civilization. At some points in the story, this evokes a sense of tranquility, but at others, the loneliness feeds into the player’s – and Henry’s – paranoia.
But Henry isn’t truly alone. Aside from Ned, who roams around the woods causing trouble for Henry – more on that in a bit – Henry’s only human connection over the course of the game is with Delilah. Henry and Delilah’s relationship is wonderfully written by the game’s writers, but also wonderfully performed by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, who inhabit their characters with ease. There are a few weird tonal shifts between conversations, but I’ll chalk that up to the voice direction not always compensating for the branching conversation paths. Delilah is both the fuel and the antidote for Henry’s paranoia, at times egging the player on, and at others, forcing them to relax and take a break. This push-pull dynamic adds a sense of realism to Henry and Delilah’s relationship.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the ending of the game, which has been a source of contention for other players. I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, the ending does kind of fizzle out; it’s not at all a jaw-dropping revelation. On the other hand, a genuine conspiracy or a supernatural event would have felt at odds with the game’s tone and presentation. The ending had to be something mundane. The fact that Ned was creating all this trouble just to cover up his past misdeeds doesn’t feel like an eleventh-hour ass-pull to me. If anything, the mundaneness of the mystery’s solution reinforces the idea that isolation fuelled Henry and Delilah’s paranoia.
The problem is that the game doesn’t engender Henry’s paranoia and the player’s paranoia in exactly the same way. Henry has little to think about in the long days spent at his lookout post; his mind has time to dwell on the strange things that have been happening and come up with elaborate explanations. Anything to keep his mind off Julia, after all. On the other hand, the player’s paranoia is generated through fear and tension; the player doesn’t get to experience Henry’s day-to-day life, for the most part. The game only takes place on days when plot-relevant events happen, so the player never really gets to inhabit his skin. Both the player’s and Henry’s paranoia are fuelled by loneliness, but only Henry’s is born of his relatively monotonous existence. And so, the player experiences a disconnect between how the ending wants them to feel (“I guess it was all in my head”) and how they actually feel (“Well that wasn’t so shocking, was it?”)
I feel like I’ve been harsher on Firewatch than I intended. It was an enjoyable ride, and its environments are simply gorgeous to behold. I’d be shocked if it didn’t end up making my top 10 games of 2016. Incompatibilities between the player’s and the protagonist’s experience prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s a fantastic experience nonetheless, and an excellent first outing from Campo Santo.